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As per the official press release by the ICC:

Mr Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, born on 7 October 1952, President of the Russian Federation, is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation (under articles 8(2)(a)(vii) and 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute). The crimes were allegedly committed in Ukrainian occupied territory at least from 24 February 2022. There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes, (i) for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others (article 25(3)(a) of the Rome Statute), and (ii) for his failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts, or allowed for their commission, and who were under his effective authority and control, pursuant to superior responsibility (article 28(b) of the Rome Statute).

The two paragraphs of the Rome Statute that they quote are:

(vii) Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement;

and

(viii) The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory

However it seems like all Russia did in this regard is transfer orphans away from the war zone into Russia. They became orphans due to Russia's invasion and that's certainly a valid crime for the ICC to prosecute, but the accusation of "unlawful deportation" seems quite strange. One could reasonably argue that Ukraine isn't exactly in great shape right now and thus orphans would be safer in Russia away from the war. Again, said war was started by Russia but the treatment of orphans doesn't seem to be unreasonable.

So why is the ICC starting out from a very minor crime rather than prosecuting Putin for starting the war in the first place? I presume there's a political reason behind this as it doesn't seem to make much sense from a purely legal standpoint. At least in my book killing tens of thousands Ukrainians and bombing their country is the very first accusation one should start with.

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    I think it is not universally agreed that all these children are in fact orphans. If some of them are not this would be a kidnapping of children away from their parents.
    – quarague
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 18:13
  • "that's certainly a valid crime for the ICC to prosecute" <- see my related question about that.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 23:40
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    One could reasonably argue that Ukraine isn't exactly in great shape right now and thus orphans would be safer in Russia away from the war. That isn't a reasonable argument in any way shape or form, unless you are attempting to whitewash Russia's actions.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Mar 22, 2023 at 15:18
  • @IanKemp I'm not whitewashing Russia's actions at all. My question explicitly states that I believe Russia is the aggressor and responsible for tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives, as well as decades of recovery for the Ukrainian state. Putin and the top ~10k Russian officials should spend the rest of their lives in jail for their crimes, along with full property confiscation from their families. But... the orphan thing seems like such a minor accusation in comparison that I didn't understand why the ICC would even bother with it. The accepted answer does clear it up. Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 1:41
  • Just for preventing what is called whataboutism, since Western politician have also comited the other crimes
    – convert
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 18:17

7 Answers 7

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Mass children abduction is not a "minor" crime. Connecting with Putin's denial of Ukraine as a separate nation and country, it is one of five acts that constitute genocide.

forcibly transferring children out of the group.

If ICC managed to prove Putin's personal responsibility for this, such act should be punished.

As for

One could reasonably argue that Ukraine isn't exactly in great shape right now and thus orphans would be safer in Russia away from the war.

Hello from Poland. There are lots of Ukrainian children here. They came here freely, if some Ukrainian school provides them remote teaching, they may attend. They can return home if situation allows. If one is afraid about children security, please send them here, we will accept them. No need to send them to those that will attempt to denationalize them.

At least in my book killing tens of thousands Ukrainians and bombing their country is the very first accusation one should start with.

War of aggression, as Fizz pointed out is in this case not in ICC's mandate. As war is going, killing and bombing is not a war crime per se. There is an international humanitarian law that regulates the conduct of war and according to it not all killing or bombing is a war crime. One need to prove that either non-military object was targeted or during targeting a military (or dual use) object, the expected civilian casualties exceed the military gain. There are such actions by Russian army, but proving personal Putin's responsibility for them may not be easy. Bucha massacre was a clear war crime, but how to prove that Putin is responsible, not overzealous local soldiers?

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    But what if it was really the free will of the children, like claimed by Russia?
    – convert
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 21:52
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    @convert It is a trial. There would be a prosecution, that would need to prove that the children were forcibly removed. And there would be a defense, trying to deny the prosecution accusations. In any case it is most like that what is relevant here is not the will of the children but that of their legal guardians.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 22:46
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    Young children typically don't go anywhere freely, but rather stay put. Also, to the extent that moving children from the Donbass anywhere else is legitimate (which it may well not be, I know nothing of international law about that) - Russia could not be expected to move children to a hostile and nearly-co-belligerent state like Poland.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 23:43
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    @Aaron F If you say that Russia is automaticaly guilty there is no need to go to ICC.
    – convert
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 18:51
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    @convert by statute, children do not have the capacity to decide such matters.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 21:57
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Because if you want to indict Putin on an ICC-indictable crime it is better to pick one where the alleged crime is publicly sanctioned and acknowledged by high ranking members of the Russian government.

ST. PETERSBURG, April 1. /TASS/. Mora than 200 orphan children from Donbass may be adopted into families in Russia in the near future, Russian children’s rights ombudswoman Maria Lvova-Belova said on Friday.

"As many as 1,560 children left without parents have arrived in Russia. Some of them arrived with their guardians. It means that these parentless children have foster parents. There are around 500 such children. The rest are children from child care homes. A total of 222 of them have the entire package of documents and can be adopted into families," she said, adding that the list of potential foster families has already been drawn.

Even civilian executions, if confirmed, in Bucha could, for example, be blamed on local troops and commanders and disowned by the Russian government, as part of its defense: "we didn't know and we did not order it."

As to whether it's a crime or not (since some commenters like to claim that Russia is "helping" by keeping those children out of danger), that's for the court to decide during a trial. An indictment doesn't mean a guilty verdict, but it does mean that the court believes there is ground for legal action.

Not directly related to the indictment, but a UN report published March 16th voiced much the same concerns. Again, the large scale forced resettlements of people across borders, and restrictions on departures, are willful, not accidental, acts that would seem hard to arrange without the support of higher levels of government. Government funds will have had to be allocated, which will leave a paper trail.

While looking into transfers of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation, the Commission found, with concern, that violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have been committed. Situations concerning the transfer and deportation of children which it has examined amount to war crimes. Witnesses told the Commission that many of the younger children transferred were not able to establish contact with their families and might lose contact with them indefinitely. Delay in the repatriation of civilians may also amount to a war crime.

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    TBH, that quote is hardly the smoking gun. IDK what the indictment says, I didn't read it, but I suspect that Putin's prior declarations that Ukrainians are a fake country/nation, and allegations that those children are given a Russian education which establish some potential similarity with the Nazi precedent. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 7:08
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    It looks like the ICC has publicly released little else on this besides those 2-3 paras from the press release quoted in the Q. So, there's not much to go on here as to what their deeper thinking on this case is... I think this is not too unusual, the ICTY cases were often sealed in their details, until the suspects were apprehended. One of the reasons was probably so that witnesses, evidence etc., could be gotten to (and destroyed/killed) by the suspects, while they were still at large. jstor.org/stable/44218540 Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 7:21
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So why is the ICC starting out from a very minor crime rather than prosecuting Putin for starting the war in the first place?

The crime of starting a war of aggression is specifically not in ICC's mandate, unless the country attacking is part of the ICC, which Russia is not:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is competent to prosecute the most serious international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It is also competent to prosecute the crime of aggression but only in relation to those countries that have accepted its jurisdiction in relation to this crime. The crime of aggression is a crime committee by the highest political and military leadership. Given that Russia does not accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, and therefore the ICC cannot exercise this competency in the context of Russia's war against Ukraine.


Regarding the ICC warrant, as far as I can tell they've released hardly any details of the indictment, beyond that press release. That was not an uncommon strategy for ICTY as well (before apprehending the suspects), as I vaguely recall. Evidence can be destroyed, witnesses suppressed etc.

Since I have no details to go on from the ICC itself, I suspect, based on press coverage of the affair, that an indictment may in part rely on Putin's prior declarations that Ukraine is a fake/country nation in order to establish his intent in regard to those children.

The NYT for example says:

Mr. Putin instituted a streamlined process in May allowing the swift nationalization of Ukrainian children. The first group became Russian citizens in July, officials announced.

“I did not recognize those kids with whom we traveled in April on the train to their new life,” Ksenia Mishonova, the children’s rights commissioner for the Moscow region, said in a statement. “Now they are our little fellow citizens!”

So it's probably more than simply/temporarily taking the children to Russia that's going to be used as evidence, possibly in an attempt to establish some kind of similarity with more odious precedents. But I'm just guessing, since the ICC has released very little details about their indictment, as far as I can tell.

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    This answer is not technically wrong but it's built on so many wrong premises that the question takes that I regard it as incomplete: "child deportation is a minor issue"? That ukraine is "not safe" (what about dozens of other countries that they could go, freely?).
    – Mayou36
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 1:09
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    @Mayou36: yeah, I admit it's a low hanging fruit answer, which addressed the easiest part of the Q, rather than try to dissect e.g. why it would be hard[er] to prosecute Putin e.g. for missile attacks on Kharkiv, when they do resemble the one on Zagreb. Putin was the smarter bear and didn't shoot off his mouth threatening to kill hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians (unlike that Serb cmdr). Also, I know little about what Putin said about the children, i.e. why the ICC felt they could get him on that. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 5:46
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    People who only read the press or Wikipedia summaries of the ICTY trials (and their appeals) often underestimate how much of the arguments in those proceedings were about establishing intent. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 6:02
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    @Mayou36 That's the shortcoming of the question, not the answer (and Tadeusz Kopec thankfully adressed it). Honestly, if anything, this answer is better: Fizz adresses the specific reason why this crime was selected among many, while Tadeusz merely admits that it is indeed a crime. Also, keep in mind: this is a court order of arrest, not a judgement.
    – Neinstein
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 6:03
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    @EugeneRyabtsev: "the West" cannot be prosecuted at the ICC. Only people can. And the doctrine of command responsibility allows for easy escape hatches to break that chain. Like ordering an internal investigation, relieving of command underlings suspected of violating IL, and finally punishing the obvious acts in [country] internal courts. So very hard to hold Bush responsible for Abu Ghraib. Probably easier to hold him for CIA "enhanced interrogation" techniques. It's generally the "our military can do no wrong" guys who get bitten by doctrine command responsibility, like the Japanese held. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 6:27
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Three excellent answers are here so far, but two critically important aspects seem to have slipped from the existing answers. Here they are:

  1. It is not "just" about the forced deportation. It is deportation with the goal of forced change of victim's identity. Which is the core definition of genocide.
  2. If you are going to actually indict the richest criminal in the human history, and your case gets to the actual court, you should expect that the most experienced and most expensive lawyers will be hired on his defense. Your argument must be bullet-proof.

Forced change of victims' identity

The Russian officials said multiple times that Ukrainians are not a nation.
That a Ukrainian is just a Russian who is ill with the disease of Russophobia.
Take a look on Timothy Snyder's Testimony to the United Nations Security Council "Russiphobia" meeting on 14 March, 2023 for further details: YouTube.

The Russian officials have openly stated that the original goal of "special military operation" is "denacification", and everyone was able to see how they understand it (ref. mass murders in Bucha, Irpin, and virtually every place that has been under the Russian control for more or less durable time):

  • "re-educating" those who would agree they are not Ukrainians, but just "ill" Russians, and who are ready to get "healed" of that illness;
  • murdering of those who insist that they are Ukrainians.

Russia’s Systematic Program for the Re-education and Adoption of Ukraine's Children.
According to researches, Russia has established a network of russification facilities, both on legitimate territory of Russia and on occupied territories.
Additionally, some of these camps have provided military training to children.


Talking of "a very minor crime"

It would be a very minor crime it were "just" forced deportation, comparing to other crimes against the humanity. Throughout 9 years of current war, a typical Russian is TV-taught how to debunk each allegation:

  • deportations? — oh, we are just worrying for their safety;
  • war of aggression? — oh, look how russophobic they are;
  • executed prisoners of war? — oh, they killed each other;
  • raping the children? — do you have evidence? your evidence is no evidence, so where's your evidence?
  • mass murders? — oh, they just slipped on banana peel; (sad sarcasm off)

But it is deportation with the goal of forced change of victim's identity, and it seems a totally different beast. Which is the core definition of genocide, and it is much harder to deny.


The evidence must be bullet-proof solid

Another point is pretty much straightforward.

While there are historic cases when sitting heads of states were warranted by ICC, this is the unprecedented case of head of a nuclear state, P5 member of UNSC, is warranted.

It is no secret that many analysts suggest that Putin is the richest person in the world. If he's defending on the alleged capital offense, it is reasonable to expect the rich to hire the most experienced, and the most expensive, lawyers. Who, in turn, will try to exploit every tiny breach in the evidence, procedure, or statement.

The ICC warrant for forced deportation of Ukrainian children with the goal of their forced russification has been chosen because the Russians have documented themselves:

Both Putin and Lvova-Belova appeared on state-controlled Russian TV, bragging about their role in:

  • kidnapping,
  • forced deportation, and
  • forced russification as the whole reason for the crimes above.

All aspects have been evident in that single video. Some analysts suggest that it would be extremely hard to prove otherwise, whatever lawyer would be conducting the defense.

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    Wait, aren’t those children from regions that were majority Russian speaking before the war? I do agree that bombing Ukrainian cities is a horrible crime but the russification accusation seems like a huge stretch. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 12:27
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    @JonathanReez "re-education" is not about teaching Tolstoyevskiy as you may know. It's about the full-scale Z-indoctrination. Probably, irreversible. Quote: "systematic re-education efforts that expose children from Ukraine to Russia-centric academic, cultural, patriotic, and/or military education". (1/2) Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 12:57
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    @JonathanReez Besides of that: this is not on the ICC news as of now, but if you follow Russian news, you may have an idea of the amount of sexual exploitation of children on Russia even before 2014. Confer, for example, the infamous мальчик Никита. The whole thing has definitely risen along with the flow of Ukrainian children from Crimea and Donbas. I would not be surprised if it suddenly appears that the political indoctrination is not even the most disgusting accusation in this court. (2/2) Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 13:07
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    @JonathanReez Scottish, Welsh and Irish people are mostly English speaking. Yet they have the right to be risen with their national identity, not English one. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 14:15
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    @JonathanReez According to 4th Geneva convention nothing is edgy here. Article 50: "Should the local institutions be inadequate for the purpose, the Occupying Power shall make arrangements for the maintenance and education, if possible by persons of their own nationality, language and religion, of children who are orphaned or separated from their parents as a result of the war and who cannot be adequately cared for by a near relative or friend." Commented Mar 22, 2023 at 13:14
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Because this crime is much easier to prove and less likely to start open ended discussions on who has invaded whom.

Russia have not been hiding these children deportations, just that they presented them as a "humanitarian action". V. Putin signed the decree making Ukrainian children very easy to adopt by Russian families. It may be that official documents and public statements at hand, released by Russian Federation itself, may form a sufficient background.

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  • It may not be that easy to prove, considering how the LPR and the DPR acceded to the Russian Federation, and Ukraine has been shelling areas in the Donbass including residential ones. Couple that with the fact that, generally, criminal convictions require establishing intent (mens rea), and it might actually be quite difficult to establish culpability. ... but it's true that it was enough for an ICC warrant.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 8:50
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    While one may argue about the "true" status of LPR and DPR, the position of very exactly ICC is unlikely to be any other than they are part of Ukraine.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 10:00
  • @einpoklum unlawful deportation or transfer doesn't depend on whether they are part of Ukraine; it's a crime either way. If they are part of Russia, it's unlawful transfer; if they are part of Ukraine then it's unlawful deportation. But I suspect that the ICC wouldn't have jurisdiction over war crimes committed by Russia in Russian territory.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 23:48
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A Michael Tracy investigation illustrates that although the USA does not recognize the authority of the ICC in general it has made several exceptions such as Syria.

The ICC arrest warrant seems to be based on a yale study using open data without including data from actually visiting Ukraine and interviewing victims etc.

One wonders why the war crimes committed in Yemen by Saudi Arabia, UAE and the USA are not investigated. Relocating orphan children is not a crime in which these countries are known to engage. A warrant for killing children or civilians could backfire against the USA as they recently killed an extended family in Afghanistan. It's a safe way for the USA to attack Russia for its crimes without fear of being attacked for its own crimes.

It seems to be another escalation and will be interesting to observe what happens if Putin goes ahead with his proposed visit to South Africa.

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Here's a very very very cynical answer. The ICC is aware that the war is an emotionally charged affair, and there are a lot of entrenched views that effectively cannot be shifted. This is the kind of thing that leads to people denying, e.g., the Bucha massacre ever occurred or that it was actually staged by Ukraine.

The ICC knows that if they pick one of these "much more obvious crimes", they'll run up against these entrenched views and achieve nothing. To achieve the goal of keeping the war in people's minds & making sure public support for Ukraine does not wilt, the ICC picks a crime that everyone disagrees with and publicizes that. You can find people who think Russia is not to blame for the war, or who think that civilian deaths / rape are inevitable during wartime and therefore we should expect these things to happen, but everyone can be expected to agree that abducting children is morally wrong. People are generally protective of children.

If you're one of the people (there is a wide target audience, from the Middle East to India/China to Vietnam to South Africa) that take a relatively sympathetic view of Russia, but because of the ICC's accusation start to reconsider that view, then the ICC has succeeded in its aim precisely by choosing this crime instead of something else.

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    The ICC is not a propaganda organisation. It's a criminal court. Its mandate is not to keep things into people's minds or generate public support for political causes. It's to bring criminals to justice.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 11:01
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    @Philipp More accurately, they claim to be a criminal court.
    – Allure
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 11:09
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    A cynical answer indeed, but not an incorrect one - while the ICC should be apolitical, we do not live in an apolitical world. In such a world, using a more emotive (but still valid) reason for issuing an arrest warrant is ultimately not going to hurt, and may very well be enough to convince one of Russia's "friends" to be the one that steps up and turns Putin in. At the very least, it will make him think even harder about travelling outside Russia's borders, which will lower his prestige with those "friends". Ultimately he loses, and that's the whole point.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 12:48
  • More accurately its an 'international' court from which the most populous (red) and most powerful (ochre) nations are excused. See map. Cynical (more correctly sardonic) is good to remind about the absurd
    – user44167
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 13:37

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